Daily Archives: August 7, 2006

Truth In Advertising – Lies We Tell Our Students And Faculty

Back in June I started writing something for possible publication elsewhere (I thought it might work as an Library Journal “Backtalk” column), but other things came along and I never got back to it. I was originally inspired to write after watching a video of a presentation by marketing guru Seth Godin . Godin is perhaps best known for his book titled “Purple Cows“, and a newer one called “All Marketers Lie”. You can find the video at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6909078385965257294 . I didn’t think of it until recently when I read this essay by Gerry McGovern titled “Truth Sells on the Web.”

You see, the piece I originally started writing was about this same theme – being honest with your community. How did I come to that? It began with Godin discussing how products are traditionally marketed – mostly with lies. I wrote:

Grodin explains it is not about the product, it’s about the story marketers sell people that makes them believe they need the product. So the market leader is often the one who tells the best story – even if it masks the truth. At least that’s the paradigm that has worked in the past. That’s not what made Google a huge success. Google is wildly successful because they give people their own story to tell. They give people something to talk about. Every Google user loves to tell a story about something they found with Google that was impossible to find anywhere else. Why do you think Google came up with the idea to feature librarians in a movie? To celebrate our genius? Heck no! It’s to demonstrate that the most reliable, dependable researchers on the planet have great stories to tell about Google, and if these people who have access to more information than anyone else can tell better stories about Google than any of those other information resources they use then so can anyone else.

So what does this have to do with our user communities, and McGovern’s essay? It’s about being honest with them. In the past I’ve discussed something I call Googlelization. By this I mean actions librarians and our associated information vendors take to make our electronic resources look, act, and feel more like Google. It makes good sense. If our library users prefer Google when they search for information, then it follows they will like our library resoruces better if they too are just like Google. We see this all the time in the world of consumer products. If one company makes a product, an SUV, frozen food, whatever, its competitors will imitate that product in hopes of attracting more customers and making more sales. Put another way, we want to give our user communities a Google experience in hopes of luring them back to the library. When librarians decide that imitating Google is the way to get students and faculty to use the library’s databases, web site, and other electronic resources, they are telling a lie.

The reason it’s a lie is because the user has only been given a Google façade. What lies behind the façade is nothing like Google. Instant gratification is not always a given. Instead of constant simplicity there may be some complexity. Instead of things being completely obvious and transparent, choices may need to be made among subtle shades of gray. And when all we do is imitate search engines the biggest lie we present is to create a mirage for the library user that no critical thought is required. When you think about it that is no different than any other marketer who lies about their product so consumers will think they need it because it will make them attractive, smart, healthy, etc. But the truth is that research (“re-search” – first you search, then you search again – it requires time and thought*) may indeed require some critical thought. Why are we afraid to tell the truth?

That’s where McGovern comes in. In his essay he tells those who develop web content that it’s better to be honest with your community even if it may cause some pain or cause you to look worse than your competitor. As an example he identifies firms that allow poor reviews of their products to co-exist with the good ones. Knowing that the reviews come from typical users and not marketers, people would be rather suspicious to find nothing but glowing reviews. McGovern says:

Much marketing and advertising is about association. We see cool, happy and beautiful people using a particular product. The association is that if we buy this product we too will become cool, happy and beautiful.The Web is different. Not totally different, but different all the same. The Web is where people go to be informed. We’re on the Web because we don’t believe the hype, because we want to get some more facts. We’re driven by logic not by impulse.

Honest websites are not better because they are morally superior but because they are more believable and trustworthy. The customer has matured. The customer is better educated, better informed.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because academic librarians exert great effort to create information environments that help our user communities achieve success in resolving their information needs. It matters because we operate a learning enterprise, and getting exposed to reality and authentic practice is critical to deep learning. Rather than trying to steal or copy Google’s story we need to create our own story. That’s the story I call the library experience. It will start by telling the truth about the potential complexity that can accompany research. We will tell people it may take them longer than 60 seconds to find valuable information. We will tell them our library databases are not the same as Google instead of trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a Google search box. What we can learn from the Googles, Godins and McGoverns of the world is that we need to honestly tell people our story and in turn give them a story to tell others. We can give them an experience they’ll want to tell others about. We can’t succeed by trying to copy what Google does. It’s just never going to happen. Let’s instead commit to telling the truth and learning how to create a good story about it. It’s time for some truth in advertising in academic libraries.

* I give credit to Susan Cheney, a colleague at St. Joseph’s University, for sharing this with me